The skills gap

These days, you’d think it would be easy for to find qualified and motivated manufacturing workers. Not according to employers. USA Today reports:

Manufacturers across the USA are having problems finding qualified employees, even though millions of factory workers lost jobs in recent years.

The most recent evidence of this came Thursday in a survey of 119 manufacturers in the Mid-Atlantic region. More than half of the 93 firms that hired in the last three months said finding workers with the right skills was difficult, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said.

Statistical quality control is a big deal in manufacturing now. Employers want workers who can keep track of data, read technical information, write reports and communicate with each other about problems.

Traditional, labor-intensive, assembly line jobs are largely a thing of the past. Employers are looking for workers who are experienced with technology, are analytical and are problem solvers.

“It puts a high premium on basic numerical skills, it puts a high premium on the ability to learn and to take instruction, but it also puts a high premium on … creativity,” says Thomas Duesterberg, president of Manufacturers Alliance, an industry group.

Employers also complain the work ethic has eroded.

Bob Confer of Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda, N.Y., says he has fired eight of the 18 people he has hired this year. They showed up late, didn’t show up at all or didn’t work hard — and those are the people he chose out of about 60 applications.

In 1996, I researched and wrote a Mercury News series called “Learning To Work.” (Thanks to the Merc’s new and even less functional archive system, I can’t give you a useful link.) In Silicon Valley’s first wave, former cannery workers became assembly workers with very little education or English fluency. I was told the new wave of workers had to be able to discuss problems with team members in English and analyze data. And they had to show up for work every day. Asian immigrants flooded into high-tech manufacturing because they had the work ethic and the math skills, but English fluency remained a challenge.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. But how did they *feel* about the job???? /sarcasm

    Sigh. Another set of victims of the self-esteem movement in our schools……

  2. Walter Wallis says:

    Perhaps, JJ, that is why they let you get away.

  3. Just because people write these things doesn’t make them valid. Statistical process control has been the major trend for 20 years or more.

    Anyone who has trouble keeping workers needs to re-evaluate how he’s treating them.

    I’ve been a manufacturing engineer for many years and the problem of getting quality workers is not new and hasn’t really changed.

    What I think this article shows, besides typical USA Today shoddy journalism, is that some factories are trying, as is also typical, to get more and more out of workers without changing their pay levels, their management style, or worker conditions. I’m no softie, but the reality is that you get what you pay for. If workers are quitting or treating their jobs with disdain in such large numbers, it’s not a poor work ethic it’s bad management.

    I’ve worked in too many factories to accept these anecdotal stories at face value.

  4. Walter Wallis says:

    Dilbert has competition?

  5. If jobs offered a chance at the life we are lead we can lead by working hard perhaps more Americans would work harder.

    As a person who has built thousands of structures in my lifetime I wonder why it is my family and I live in a older home prone to need repairs weekly.

    Work harder you say? Then when do we get to relax? When we die?

  6. Mad Scientist says:

    I work in a manufacturing plant, and I interact with the operators on a daily basis. I can tell the “newbies” from the old hands. Both groups have their positives and negatives. The experienced workers make on the order of $35K/year, not bad for rural Western New York. I will add here that we are not a union shop.

    Some of the older folks are so set in their ways, that anything that seems different from what was done 20 years ago is “asking them to do more”, and they resent it. For example, the functions of two closely aligned operations were merged into one department (same management structure). Now employees are expected to cross train to be able to do both functions (that pay the same). These are not happy campers. Are we asking them to do more? Not really; we are not asking them to do both jobs, we are asking them to be able to do both jobs.

    We have gone through a hiring spurt, since demand has picked up. We hired one individual (a union guy) who was laid off from another company in the same town. After about a week, he though he was being asked to do too much, so he just stopped showing up. No notice, just quit coming in.

    Also, I have seen some of the younger R&D techs have really bad work attitudes; sort of the “why are you asking me to do this?” when “this” just happens to be part of their job.

    On the management side, we are always looking for way to make the jobs easier and safer. We get input from the workers, and actually ask for their suggestions.

    As for “when do we get to relax?”, did you ever consider retirement?

  7. Seems to me that this isn’t about “working harder”–it’s just about working a little differently. Is it “harder” to do some SQC calculations than to just tighten bolts all day?…at least there’s less risk of repetitive motion injury. Is it “harder” to paricipate in a meeting about production improvement ideas than to do nothing but weld?…seems like it would be a welcome change of pace.

  8. Richard Cook says:

    Looks like we have answered at least part of the why “jobs go to india/China”.

  9. Well, having it seems as if having a good work ethic is a problem anymore, however, if the concept of leading from the top applies, the problems of CEO’s ripping off companies, or getting golden parachutes when the rest of the company is going under, or laying massive amounts of people off, could be an explanation.

    However, the end result is that people in general want to do the least amount of work in order to get paid (no matter where they work).

  10. Walter Wallis says:

    It is better under capitalism.

  11. Mark Odell says:

    Bill wrote: the problems of CEO’s ripping off companies, or getting golden parachutes when the rest of the company is going under, or laying massive amounts of people off,

    Company boards of directors, and especially hiring committees, are just going to have to get a whole lot smarter about how much, in what forms, when, and for what specific behavior they reward their senior managers. Otherwise, their companies will “dissolve on contact with reality”. It’s just that simple.

  12. Walter Wallis says:

    Laws that permit Golden Parachutes or Poison Pills or that even allow the term Hostile Takeover for owners firing incompetent management, but put Martha Stuart in jail and blow away half the share value of Microsoft, need work. Management should never be in a position of recommending directors. I don’t know a better way, but nows’ way needs work.

  13. Mark Odell says:

    Mad Scientist wrote: Some of the older folks are so set in their ways, that anything that seems different from what was done 20 years ago is “asking them to do more”, and they resent it.

    {RANT}
    Could it be that in fact you are “asking them to do more”, but you don’t realize it?

    Could it be that “set in their ways” is a euphemism for “right” wielded by people who don’t want to confront the possibility that what they think they know (e.g. “change for its own sake is good”) may be all wrong?

    For example, the functions of two closely aligned operations were merged into one department (same management structure).

    Dilbert Alert! Dilbert Alert!

    Could it be that your employees are thinking, “WTF?! Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”, but they’re intimidated from saying so openly because they’re afraid (perhaps with good reason) of getting fired for daring to contradict the self-styled Monarchs Of All They Survey?

    Now employees are expected to cross train to be able to do both functions (that pay the same). These are not happy campers.

    Could this be because history and experience (particularly recent history) demonstrate that “cross-train” is code for “train-your-replacement“, and they resent the deception attempt? (FYI perhaps I should explain that it violates their trust, not to mention implied contract-law tenets of good faith and fair dealing….but I digress.)

    Are we asking them to do more? Not really; we are not asking them to do both jobs

    (at least, not yet),

    we are asking them to be able to do both jobs.

    Since scarcity is the source of all value, what is their incentive to undercut themselves? So that you can “cream-skim” when “management” decides, in its sole and unappealable judgement, that “demand” (by which it means sales) has dropped off, and then feels no need to do anything positive about it, like actually using its purported “management” skills to boost sales? (E.g. I might suggest solving the problem of falling sales by concentrating your attentions on the sales department, and replacing the incompetent salespeople with competent ones — that is, unless “falling sales” is merely a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself, or is just the most-convenient excuse for not addressing the real problem…?)

    We have gone through a hiring spurt, since demand has picked up. We hired one individual (a union guy) who was laid off from another company in the same town. After about a week, he though he was being asked to do too much, so he just stopped showing up. No notice, just quit coming in.

    Unless someone talked to him, how do you know what he thought? If someone did talk to him, are you sure they fully understood whatever it was he told them, or did they reject it out of hand as irrelevant/unimportant without even considering its possible validity?

    Also, I have seen some of the younger R&D techs have really bad work attitudes; sort of the “why are you asking me to do this?” when “this” just happens to be part of their job.

    Does your company have written job descriptions? If so, is “this” part of the written job description? (If not, why not?) Could it be that “this” wasn’t made clear to them pre-employment?

    On the management side, we are always looking for way to make the jobs easier and safer.

    “Easier and safer” for whom? By whose standards?

    We get input from the workers, and actually ask for their suggestions.

    And then what? Does all that “input” just fall into a black hole somewhere, or is there “management” follow-through? If there is, of what nature?

    As for “when do we get to relax?”, did you ever consider retirement?

    Somehow, the words “arrogance” and “condescension” spring to mind.

    In the “Management Can Do No Wrong” religion, call me an atheist.

    (And if you wondered why I put the word “management” in quotes, it’s because “The first myth of management is that it exists.”)
    {/RANT}

  14. Walter Wallis says:

    Businesses do not exist to provide employment.

  15. Mad Scientist says:

    How the Real World Works

    Mark, a very interesting, lengthy, and shortsighted post. I will try to address your concerns. I doubt that you have worked in industry, or if you have, there is a reason why you possess such a dim view of management.

    When the plant first began making our products (30 years ago), my understanding is that it was not a pleasant place to work. We deal with powder products and the place was a mess (dust clouds around every corner). We have cleaned it up to the point that people from all over this multinational company come here to see how things should be done.

    Thirty years ago, there were no computers. Do you suggest we do not take advantage of that technology because of the people who are “right” (i.e., set in their ways)? That is shortsighted at best. We need to take advantage of the stuff that makes our jobs easier. That is the essence of productivity increases.

    When this company was bought four years ago, the new owners consolidated two other plants to here because they were impressed with the way we run the business. It is not often that the acquiring company closes its own plants and moves the work to the acquired location. We can only assume the management here was actually doing something properly.

    The consolidation of the two departments was something that should have been done years ago. The Blending and Extrusion areas both report to the same Production Supervisor (one person). They merged the two departments into Compounding with the same Production Supervisor. Now, workers are expected to cross train to be able to fill in rather than cover illness or vacation with overtime. Both the Blending and Extrusion (and now Compounding) jobs pay exactly the same. We are not asking someone who is running an Extruder to blend his own batch. Logistically, that would be close to impossible. We just want him to be able to do either job in case someone is out. The work load has not changed; in fact it has increased (which is why we are hiring). We are just changing the way the work is assigned according to the needs of the business. This is what we like to call being flexible.

    Our people are not exactly shy about expressing themselves. The hourly workers do not run the risk of getting fired for expressing their opinions. They do not like the new system (because it breaks their routine) and have made that clear from direct comments and the ability to bid outside of their area when there are openings in other departments.

    As far as to how our demand has “slacked off”, we are suppliers to the electronics industry. We do not make electronic devices; we make materials that are used in the construction of electronic devices. If you have not noticed, the electronics industry softened around the middle of 2000 and is in the begining stages of making a comeback. Our volumes hit a low in 2003 of 65% of what they were in 2000. Even the best salesman cannot convince a customer to build inventory with insufficient income coming in just to keep people working. That is what we like to call a losing proposition.

    As for the guy who just decided not to show up any more, it was actually after two weeks. We know why he left; it was obvious. He was a complainer the whole time and commented that the work was too hard. On a similar note, we had a group of candidates come in today. As is standard practice, they were given a plant tour before meeting with the supervisors. One guy decided that the work was too hard and left the interview before he actaully talked to anyone about the job.

    We have carefully written job descriptions. The R&D tech in question knew that what he was asked to do was well within the scope of the job description; he just resented the fact that while someone else developed the method, it was now his responsibility to continue on with the test.

    As for the “easier and safer”, you really ought to understand that nobody wins when a worker is hurt. Or when a job is too difficult. One of the tasks the Compounding operators have to do is clean their machines. In the past this involved spending 4-6 hours with a pneumatic chipping hammer (basically a small air powered jackhammer) breaking cured epoxy from extruder parts. We developed a system where all the operator has to do is remove the parts (uncleaned) and bring them to a high-pressure washer that does the job for them automatically at the push of a button. The guys appreciate the $400,000 we spent on this machine because they no longer have to do a loud, messy job that puts them at risk of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. So it is easier for them and safer for them. We also turn around our machines faster and get higher productivity allowing us to keep the plant open so these people have jobs. A win-win.

    I have gotten loads of input from the workers and develop projects to incorporate the ideas that make engineering and economic sense. Close to 50% of the ideas actually bear fruit. In implementing the solutions, we get their input as to the best way to install it so they can do their job easier. They also get awards for bringing the ideas to our attention. It is a small price to pay.

    I suggest you reconsider the crack about “arrogance and condescension”. If we relax, then our competitors catch up to, and ultimately surpass us. This is what happened to Detroit in the 1970’s. People who run businesses cannot afford to relax until they are no longer responsible for running a business. That is a fact of life.

    My company succeeds because we have management that keeps its eye on the reason why we are in business. A large portion of that is to listen to the people who actually touch the product day in and day out and to filter the good ideas from the normal bitching. That is what management is about.